Month: October 2014

Stop. I want you to think about how many things you are working on right now? You probably have about five to six different tabs open in your browser, add to that your email client, IDE perhaps a terminal or two. Am I getting close? You know how I know? Because that’s what’s currently open on my laptop as I type this post.

We have become the distracted generation. Our phones are constantly beeping, the notifications on our desktops are popping up with more and more frequency. We struggle to have conversations where one person (or sometimes even both) pay attention for the entire conversation. Don’t believe me? You might not notice it any more, but try having a conversation with someone at work and see how long before they are looking at their phone or their monitor.

There have been numerous studies that have shown that we are really bad at true multitasking, it seems like with training you can teach yourself to focus on two things at once however you still will only do them at half efficiency. Most of us just do inefficient (and mentally exhausting) context switches. There have even been studies that have proved that multitasking causes a significant decrease to your IQ (here). Over all it’s a pretty nasty habit and yet we all do it.

Seem like according to science we have four slots in our “working” memory. That’s why sometimes when we try to solve a rather tricky problem or remember something critical we close our eyes, it’s to prevent something we see go into our working memory and take up one of those precious slots.

Sometimes we use multitasking to avoid having to do something which we perceive to be unpleasant. It makes us feel like we are accomplishing things while not having to actually work on whatever we are trying to avoid. It seems like when our brain thinks that the task we have to perform next is unpleasant it will channel our attention in other directions to try and avoid causing us pain. However a interesting study shows that just two minutes into a task that was previously seen as unpleasant is usually long enough for your brain to figure out that the task is not painful and then to release dopamine as a reward for overcoming your fear. I have a lot more to say on procrastination, however I need to focus and get back on topic.

Why worry?
Why worry?

Back to focusing, here is the thing. In this day and age it’s becoming more difficult, but it’s still achievable. Here are some tips that I use when I need to focus on something and get it done.

1) Switch off your email clients notifications, you know that little popup that shows up at the bottom right of your screen whenever one of your colleagues finds a funny picture on the internet and shares it with everyone?

2)  Switch your phone on silent and put it upside down (by the way this is a great tip for when you are speaking to someone face to face or in a group meeting, you don’t want to be the person always on their phone, trust me your manager notices).

3) Earphones and music. Don’t listen to new music, rather listen to songs that you know. Also I would suggest something with a fast tempo, you don’t want to fall asleep.

4) Use the Pomodoro Technique, this is a neat little trick that I use a lot. If I am struggling to focus on something I set a timer to twenty five minutes, sometimes a bit less sometimes a bit more. I also tell myself that after twenty five minutes I will reward myself maybe with some coffee or a quick walk. Once the timer starts I find it pretty easy to get into the flow because I know that twenty five minutes isn’t that long and I know that I will feel great afterwards.

5) Focus on Process not Product. This is a tip I picked up a while back. When the end goal (product) is something really big (a new system) things can seem overwhelming sometimes it feels like no matter how much effort you will put in you will fail. When you start feeling overwhelmed you might be tempted to just give up. This is where focusing on the Process helps, forget all the work that still needs to get done, work out what the next logical step is, set up your twenty five minute timer and get cracking  (a thousand mile journey starts with one step, but you need to keep stepping to finish)

There is another benefit of being able to focus. It’s when you are in bed, just before you go to sleep and you are at peace with yourself because you’ve done the best you can and you are looking forward to giving tomorrow your best as well.

Until next time, may you know the joys of trying your hardest and being guilt free

-R

You do not want to stop learning. When you finished your formal education you might be tempted to pack those books away and put that part of your life in the same cupboard as those books. Before you do that hear me out. You are missing out on the best time in your life to actually learn something. Once your formal education is over it is the perfect time to really start learning.

I don’t want to say too many bad things about the education you get from schools, I think it’s good to have some structure in those formative years of your life and I think that schools are fine, they are not perfect but they serve a purpose. For most (myself included) school education sucks the fun out of learning and the last thing you want to do after you’ve finished school is start studying again. That’s because the was we studied and were taught at school is wrong. I am not proposing you go buy a text book on french and study it in the old school yard style, no sir.

Study what you love, after school you might start working and think to yourself well I should probably get better at my current job, and you would be right. You should spend some time learning and improving your skills at what’s currently putting the food on the table, however don’t limit yourself to just that. Sit down and think about what you love. Love playing computer games? Study some game theory. Love classical music? Go learn about your favourite composers, or if you are so inclined learn a musical instrument.

Forget the old structure. If it didn’t work for you at school then forget it, let your curiosity guide you. Explore what you find exciting. Now comes the time in your life where you are in control of what goes into your brain! You no longer have to cram for exams (although you really shouldn’t have been cramming 😛 ). You no longer have a curriculum that you need to follow, this might seem daunting at first, but if you study things you love, it won’t feel like a chore. After all those years of structure you finally have freedom. Your mind is now open for whatever you feed it, just try to avoid feeding it on too much TV.

Another benefit of learning what you love is that you can, if you want to, meet new people. People who have similar passions/interests as you do. Sometimes you will meet them online in the forums dedicated to learning all about engines, or IRL at that convention dedicated to gaming that you are attending for “educational purposes”. Who knows you might even make some new friends.

Always be curious, when something catches your attention focus on it, look at how it works ask questions about it. Now more than ever we have the answers available to us. When watching a sitcom ask yourself why does the entire sitcom usually only happen in one or two locations?  Your mind is naturally curious and you will be surprised where it leads you when you sit quietly and let it take control for a while.

You might ask yourself, what benefits does studying World War II have? You love history, however you are a busy person, how can you justify spending your valuable time in such frivolous pursuits? Well, firstly your brain is a giant pattern recognition system. The more patterns you have the more likely you are to somewhere along the line make some connection that will spark something and you could be the next founder of Microsoft II. The other reason is if you look at the truly successful people, they are not one dimensional. Bill Gates plays a lot of bridge. and I bet you he’s spent a lot of time learning the rules and mechanics of it to become a better player.

I know a few paragraphs back I told you to forget the old structure, well that’s not entirely true. You should still test yourself, occasionally look back and think about the past two months or six months and ask yourself have I gotten better? What am I better at? What am I passionate about? After you know those things adjust course and get excited again.

Until next time, may your mind lead you down interesting, exciting paths.

-R